THE BLOG
17/09/2014 06:52 BST | Updated 16/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Special Role for Scottish Jews?

Whichever way the vote goes on Thursday, there will need to be a process of healing afterwards, because the big irony has been that in debating whether to divide from England, the Scots have actually divided themselves from each other, not just political groups but neighbours and families. Perhaps Scottish Jews, used to reconciling multiple identities over the centuries, can be part of the process.

There are not that many Scottish Jews, and they are relatively new arrivals, but they are equally agonised over the independence question.

There have always been individual Jews who strayed across Hadrian's Wall, but as a settled community they did not start till 1816 with the establishment of the Edinburgh Synagogue. Their numbers exploded in the 1880s, though, thanks to emigration following the pogroms and persecutions in Czarist Russia.

The largely poor, working class East European immigrants initially huddled together, but then integrated with a remarkable degree of social mobility:

As a generalisation, the first generation were tailors and peddlers; the second generation went into business; the third generation entered the professions as doctors, lawyers, dentists, accountants; the fourth generation (today's) are often either in the caring industries (teachers, social workers, therapists) or in IT.

Famous Scottish Jews include the literary scholar David Daiches - the son of the Edinburgh rabbi - who is often credited with reviving interest in Scottish Literature in recent times, with his books on Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and the modern poet Hugh Macdiarmid.

Others rose to fame in politics: such as the former Conservative Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, while on the Labour side was the fiery Manny Shinwell, MP for Glasgow for many years, Minister for Defence in 1950 and later made Lord Shinwell.

Today, though, Scottish Jewry is in decline, with the community assimilating so successfully that the younger generation are losing their identity and the older one fast disappearing.

In terms of communal relations, there is a mixed picture: on the positive side, relations between Jews and the rest of the population have been harmonious throughout the last 200 years.

At the same time, Scots have tended to be very pro-Palestinian - with many towns and universities twinning with Palestinian ones, and some taking anti-Zionist stances. Although anti-Zionism is different from anti-semitism, it can make life feel uncomfortable for Jews living there, or students at university, when opposition to Israel's policies spills over into antagonism towards Jews.

Curiously enough, Scottish Jews may have been better prepared than others in thinking through the independence vote. The question of 'What is our national identity?' has long been a Jewish question too: who are we really? are we Scottish Jews or Jewish Scotsmen?

While some Jews wanted to live in a Jewish national homeland and emigrated to Israel once it was created, others feel at home in Scotland, rooted in the land and culture. It also means that, down south, English Jews perhaps understand the issues facing the Scots more than the rest of the somewhat puzzled population.

Jews are also acutely aware of what happens when nationalism becomes a dominant force, having experienced its horrific results in Nazi Europe. It has been worrying to see occasions when the Scots debate veered from civilised disagreement to verbal violence, with a degree of animosity and vilification that reminds of the dark forces that can lurk beneath the surface.

Whichever way the vote goes on Thursday, there will need to be a process of healing afterwards, because the big irony has been that in debating whether to divide from England, the Scots have actually divided themselves from each other, not just political groups but neighbours and families. Perhaps Scottish Jews, used to reconciling multiple identities over the centuries, can be part of the process.